Drawing a self-portrait was the initial assignment we used to give students at the outset of our design drawing class. The process we outlined was as follows:
“Have available a fine-tipped black pen capable of marking a sheet of clear acetate. Select a comfortable, seated position in front of a mirror and tape the acetate sheet to the mirror where your face appears. Carefully consider the shape, proportion, and features of your face.
With the pen and using a line technique, draw your portrait directly on the sheet of acetate. To do this, you must look through only one eye—your dominant eye. To find out which is your dominant eye, mark the tip of your nose on the mirror with both eyes open and then shutting each eye in turn. Seen through your dominant eye, the mark will hardly move; through the weaker one, the mark will shift considerably.”
This is my attempt, which I’ve flipped so that the image is as you would see me. It seems that I’m looking to my right but I was actually looking straight ahead. While the task itself does not take very long, it is difficult to keep your head steady while trying to trace the contours of your face. You also learn after a few tries not to draw every line you see! This was a fun exercise that not only introduced the students to drawing from observation but also helped us identify students before the age of digital cameras.
A common technique for composing a drawing is using a window or doorway to frame the scene. I particularly like using arched openings as a framing device since the shape is easily recognizable for what it is. Here are three examples, one of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, another of S. Ivo in Rome , and the third from an old brewery building in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In each case, I start with the shape and proportions of the arched opening. I then use this shape and size as the measure for everything that is seen and drawn within the arched shape. The arched shape also serves as the foreground element that establishes where I am and my relationship to what I am viewing.
Notice that I drew the archway leading to the courtyard and Borromini’s S. Ivo della Sapienza a little low but I didn’t let this prevent me from drawing the full height of its spire. This is a reminder to never let a framing device alter the proportions of what you are drawing.
In the Wedgewood neighborhood of north Seattle sits this massive rock measuring 80 feet in circumference and 19 feet in height. Geologists call it a glacial erratic, meaning that its composition does not match its present surroundings. It was deposited more than 14,000 years ago by the Vashon Glacier. As the ice sheet moved inexorably from the north into the Puget Sound area, rocks, sediments and boulders such as this one were carried along by the glacier, and then were left behind when the ice retreated. Originally known as the Lone Rock when it was part of a large farmstead, this large mass is now called simply the Big Rock. It became part of a subdivision platted in the 1940s, where it remains surrounded by houses, trees and brush at the corner of 28th Avenue NE and NE 72nd Street.
This is a weird drawing in the sense that we can’t immediately recognize the Big Rock for what it is. What is that large mass of darkness? We have this yearning to know and identify what it is that we see, which is more easily satisfied when we draw buildings, people, trees and other recognizable things.
I’m sure not everyone would share my love for geometry but an appreciation of the subject has served me well in my years as an architect. Understanding geometry, especially spatial relationships in three dimensions, makes it easier to draw these correspondences in real life.
Take this interior view of St. James Cathedral. Because of the ornamentation, textures and color, it is easy to get confused when confronted by the richness of the scene. But underlying all of the lavish decorative features is a clear geometric scheme.
Imagine looking from above at the square crossing where the nave of the church intersects the transepts. From each side of the square crossing rises semicircular arches. From the apex of each arch, we can extend lines until they intersect at the center of the dome’s oculus. The diagonal groin lines that mark the intersection of the two vaults rise from each corner to intersect at the same center.
If we understand these geometric relationships and, just as important, we can see them as we sit in one of the pews looking upward at the dome, we can draw the square crossing and estimate the placement of the oculus without guessing. We can place it at the peak of the dome, at the intersection of the crossing groin ribs, directly above the center of the crossing.
A question that is often asked is: How do I start a drawing? Where do I start? The very first step, before even touching pen to paper, is selecting the subject matter and mentally composing the image—deciding what will be included and what excluded from the scene before us. Will we zoom in on a part of a building, capture one of its interior spaces, or focus on one of its details? Do we see the building merely as an object? Will we try to place a building in its context? Or will we try to capture the life of a street or square with the architecture serving as a container or backdrop?
• Interior space
• Building as object
• Buildings in context
• The life of an urban space
I did this sketch to help publicize a one-day workshop Gail Wong and I will be offering in Mt. Vernon on Saturday, April 20th. Mt. Vernon is an enchanting small town in Skagit County north of Seattle and the Mt. Vernon Downtown Association is hosting the event.
Full disclosure: Due to constraints of time and weather I drew this scene from a digital photograph that was sent to me. I soon realized that drawing from a photo can actually be more difficult than drawing on location. In a 3D environment, we are able to perceive much more than in a 2D photograph. We can shift our gaze, if necessary, to uncover certain details or to see more clearly things that might be hidden or obscured. And we are free to interpret the 3-dimensional information before us. But in a photograph, everything is frozen, including ambiguities that have to be resolved.
Another note: The Namiki Falcon fountain pen is known for its flexible nib. While it is a joy to draw with, I rarely carry the pen for fear of losing it. But since I was in my home office, I took the opportunity to use it for this sketch. The Namiki Falcon is not inexpensive but still it is a reasonably priced introduction to fine quality fountain pens. Highly recommended.
Even though it’s a typically chilly and rainy winter in Seattle, what better time to study the branch structure of trees. For these stark, black-and-white images, I used a Tombow brush pen.
While I could have relied on my memory or imagination to draw these, I find that the raw material provided by real-life patterns have a specificity that is more compelling than the stereotypical views that we store in our memory bank, and they are much easier to compose and interpret.
The converging lines and foreshortened shapes of a perspective drawing give it a dynamic quality. Yet, it remains a static view—a moment in time—as seen from a single point in space. To better convey movement through space, we can use a series of changing perspective views, as English architect and urban designer Gordon Cullen did when he coined the phrase Serial Vision to describe what one might see and experience as one walks through a sequence of spaces.
This is what I intended to depict when the Seattle Urban Sketchers met yesterday at Suzzallo Library on the UW campus. These drawings chronicle how one approaches the library from across Red Square, enters one of its portals, moves through the lobby and up the main staircase, and arrives in the main reading room.
Nine drawings done in two hours and twenty-five minutes.
A caricature is a pictorial or literary description of a person or thing that exaggerates certain distinctive characteristics to create an easily identifiable likeness. The result can be insulting or complimentary; I certainly hope these caricatures of me are the latter! These were done and graciously given to me by various individuals during presentations and workshops that I have given.
While these are definitely not intended to be caricatures, they still represent my attempt to capture the likeness of individuals, which is always an enjoyable and constant challenge. I used my iPad to draw these prospective jurors in the King County courthouse. It helped that these people were sedentary, lost in their own thoughts while waiting to be called for jury duty.
To draw people who are moving is much more difficult, as in this view of a rainy morning in Shibuya, Tokyo. These commuters and their umbrellas provide a sense of scale to the composition and lead the eye across the overpass while the automobile traffic flows below.
This study of the uniquely shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree, considered to be a living fossil, requires careful observation of shapes, details, and most importantly, the relationships between the two. In Lingua Franca, a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum ends his essay with a quote from Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist who specialized in the grammar of the English language:
“To anyone who finds that linguistic study is a worthless finicking with trifles, I would reply that life consists of little things; the important matter is to see them largely.”